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Life & Death

I think it was Ronan Keating that sang “Life is a Rollercoaster”. I agree! Recently, I went from a wonderful high (being told my liver was tumour-free), to a cruel low when a friend died just a few days later.

I had known that Andrew’s death was coming, because he had Motor Neurone Disease (MND), which is currently incurable. I thought I was prepared for it, but I ended up in a bit of a psychological mess. A friend suggested I had ‘survivor’s guilt’ because, on my last visit to Andrew, I was pleased to be able to tell him that I was well (he always wanted to know how I was). But he wasn’t well at all. 

This blog probably wouldn’t have started if it weren’t for Andrew. He was a blogger and encouraged me to do the same. He said it would be good therapy and he gave me a deadline to launch it. I missed that deadline (procrastination, of course!). But he kept on my back and… here it is.

I’d known Andrew for nearly three years. I met him not long after his MND diagnosis, on an Alpha Course – which is a worldwide course that’s run by some Christian churches for people of all faiths (and none), to explore the Christian faith by discussing interesting questions like ‘Was Jesus Lord, Liar or Lunatic?’

It was my first time ‘doing Alpha’ and meeting Andrew was fascinating, because he was an atheist (i.e. he did not believe in the existence of ‘God’) and he was in a life and death battle. He was an extremely intelligent and successful man – he spoke at least four languages fluently and had held senior positions within global companies all around the world. He wasn’t the type of guy that would settle for soppy and poorly-considered answers. The discussions were brilliant.

Andrew and I hit it off and, when I was well enough, we spent time together almost every week over the remaining few years of his life. I was in awe of the man and I was amazed that, despite everything he was experiencing, he found faith and a hope in the Jesus story. He wrote powerfully about his new-found faith and in doing so he quoted the 17th century mathematician Blaise Pascal:

“There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.”

Andrew said that he recognised this ‘vacuum’ and he had spent his life trying to fill it with everything but his Creator. He began to believe that he was lovingly and uniquely created and that, even with MND, his life could still serve an important purpose (and he was so right!). This spurred him on to achieve amazing things, like writing books with just his mind and his eyes! In his own words:

Out of the circumstances, I have come to believe with ever increasing clarity in God and what He has done for me through Jesus Christ. In fact I believe He has a purpose in me having this illness, though this often so hard to accept. Some would say my illness created a crisis and that is why I have ‘found God’. In a way that is true; my crisis finally humbled me enough to ‘stop’, pay attention, to seek, to learn and discover.

All of us that knew Andrew were struck by his positive outlook, in spite of losing the control of almost every bodily function. I have a niggling sense that his positivity, combined with his desperation to stick around for his wonderful young family, was the reason he outlasted his short life expectancy by more than a year.

Much has been written by and about Andrew online and in the press. One example is HERE (interview with the ‘i’ newspaper)

At Andrew’s funeral, he had asked a lawyer and former colleague (also the person that had encouraged him to try Alpha) to ‘Preach the Gospel’ to those attending. It was a packed house and Andrew’s wish was granted. He wanted everyone to hear the story. 

The Gospel – otherwise known as the Good News – is essentially this:

Around 2,000 years ago, there lived a man in the Middle East called Jesus (from Nazareth). We know nothing of what he looked like or how much money he had or whether he was in a sexual relationship – these things are not important in this story (very different from what ‘society’ see as important, right?!). What we do know is that he lived a life utterly devoted to giving hope to the hopeless and help to the helpless – regardless of status, ethnicity, gender, wealth etc. etc. 

Jesus was that very rare breed of person that stood up to bullies, killers, liars, cheats and those whose livelihoods cause the suffering of others. Of course, standing up to these sorts can get you killed and that’s exactly what happened. He was tortured and killed in a most horrific way and his death highlighted the brokenness and cruelty of humanity.

BUT, the story doesn’t end there… Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his followers, scars and all. His message was that he was no ordinary man, but divine and he had come to show humanity that death is not the end for ANYONE who chooses to follow His way (i.e. promoting love, peace and forgiveness – not oppressing, bullying, killing, cheating, lying etc.). Eternal life is promised. There’s more to come and it’s better than anyone can imagine.

Here’s a translation of the words that were written by someone who knew Jesus in the flesh:

Jesus said… “You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?”

John 11:25, The Message

Of course, there’s a lot more to this story and – because it’s about the divine – it’s full of scenarios that we can only imagine (e.g. a virgin birth, walking on water, turning water into wine etc.). This can make it challenging for many to believe it; but would a God-story be more believable without miracle stories?

The biggest stumbling block is probably this: Jesus was human but he also claimed to be divine. This begs that question ‘Is he Lord, Liar or Lunatic?’ Either he is who he said he is, or he was a liar, or he was insane! The debate on this will continue to the end of time, no doubt.

The Jesus story seems unbelievable, I know. But there’s an experience element to it and, through something called the Holy Spirit, countless people have felt and seen the power of this story over the centuries. Andrew and I found common ground here. Also we agreed that, of all the ‘god stories’ that have had a serious impact on this world, only Jesus makes any sense to us. Why follow a god that has not bothered to experience the challenges of humanity and the suffering we all face? When you’re going through hell it’s comforting to think God understands. Jesus understood the fear of death that is instilled in humanity and he is unique in this respect.  

Andrew believed in the Gospel and it gave him much-needed hope, as well as peace that no human could offer him. In the end, he told his family and friends that he was no longer afraid of death and he was more than ready to go to the place, where it is said:

There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain. The old things have disappeared.

Revelation 21:4

At the wake following Andrew’s funeral his wife asked me to play Matt Redman’s rendition of ‘When we all get to Heaven’. It was terrifying playing it by myself on a grand piano in a big school hall. But, I did it for Andrew’s family, for him, and with the hope in my mind of seeing him again some day, with his body and voice working perfectly and laughing, without choking.

Andrew, my friend, I look forward to a pint with you at Heaven’s Bar someday, mate!

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